Sunday, November 14, 2010


I'm used to spell-checks rejecting most of my words-of-the-day. I see little reason to post common words.
In today's word, henotheism, however, spell-check rejected my spelling of a more common word - worshipping. Is it only one 'p'?

No, say I. But what's the rule?

Verbs ending in ‘p’

Most verbs ending in ‘p’, after an unstressed vowel, have no doubling of that final consonant in standard received British English or American English. Here are some which follow the ‘most verbs’ rule: ‘develop’, ‘gossip’, ‘gallop’ – these become just ‘developing/developed’, ‘gossiping/gossiped’, ‘galloping/galloped’.
Even here, there are pesky exceptions: ‘worship’, ‘handicap’ and ‘kidnap’ become ‘worshipping/worshipped’, ‘handicapping/handicapped’ and ‘kidnapping/kidnapped’ in standard received British English.
Fowler's makes the point that it's worshiped and sometimes kidnaped in American English. But I find this exception to the exception of the exception a bit much. Double the last consonant when taking a suffix, except for words ending in p where the final syllable is not stressed, except for worship, kidnap and handicap, except for worship in the US. But not doubling the final letter in these words with a suffix makes the final vowel look like it should be long. I'm with the Brits on this one.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


retrodict \ret-ruh-DIKT\

: to utilize present information or ideas to infer or explain (a past event or state of affairs)

Hindsight is 20-20? Not exactly. I really like MW's word of the day today. It means inferring backwards from the present state of things to explain the a past state of affairs we would otherwise have no or little information about - the origin of the universe, or the customs and beliefs of some ancient civilization.

While it's quite tempting to think of retrodiction as "predicting" the past, the reasoning employed isn't quite the same. Prediction is largely an inductive process. We see specific events happening, we develop theories about why (induction) and then project those theories into the future based on the current state of affairs and our theories. (Every time it has rained, the grass has gotten wet, therefore whenever it rains, the grass will be wet.) Retrodiction is largely abductive. It sees the present state of affairs and proposes an sufficient explanation. (The grass is wet, so it must have rained last night.) Of course, retrodiction is tethered to prediction. A theory which does not produce good predictions is unlikely to be employed in retrodiction. And thus we can "test" our retrodictions about past events.

To complete the picture, when we explain present events, we are using deduction.  It's raining now. The grass is wet. Therefore the rain made the grass wet. You'll note, of course, that there are other things which must also be true. There cannot be another source of moisture. There cannot be anything stopping the rain from reaching the grass. We make these and many other observations when we come to the simple deduction that we don't need to water the grass since it's raining.

So if science is largely a matter of induction, it is fair to say that it's mostly about prediction? I'd say yes. Even when science seeks to explain the past or present, it does so by creating theories that will predict the future. This is necessary for a theory to be testable.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why is it called a cockpit?

For today's word, internecine, I found a quote from 1893, "When we speak of the struggle for existence, the popular view seems to construe this into the theory that the world is a mere cockpit, in which one race carries on an internecine struggle with the other," ten years before the Wright Brothers first successful flight.

Naturally cockpit here is meant in the sense of, "a pit or enclosure for cockfights." But that took me a moment.

Which begs the question, why do we call the pilots' cabin a cockpit?

Sometime around 1700 a compartment belowdecks on a British naval vessel started to be called a cockpit. "The often cramped and confined compartment was placed below the waterline and served as quarters for junior officers as well as for treating the wounded during battle." Hence, the name for the compartment: the association with blood in a tight confined space. While "the purpose of this compartment evolved over time, its name did not. Even today, a room on the lower deck of a yacht or motor boat where the crew quarters are located is often called a cockpit. In addition, the rudder control space from which a vessel is steered is sometimes called a cockpit since a watchman in the highest position is called a cock, and a cavity in any vessel is called a pit.

"This sense of the word, as an often confined space used for control purposes, was first applied to an aircraft around 1914 by pilots during World War I. In keeping with this same meaning, the tightly confined control space of a racing automobile also became known as a cockpit by about 1935."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Certain Unalienable Rights

"I saw an ad that referred to unalienable rights, but isn't it inalienable?" I had to think for a moment and answered, "Yes, I think it is."

Naturally we were both wrong. At least, wrong in the sense that the Declaration of Independence reads
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But I think we can both be excused for the error. This site makes a distinction between unalienable and inalienable. Unalienable rights are rights are inherent in you. They cannot be taken or given away. They can be abridged or denied. But they are still your rights. Inalienable rights are rights that can only be taken from you with your consent. They're yours so long as you claim them. But the Wikipedia entry on Natural Rights uses the terms inalienable and unalienable without distinction.

Merriam-Webster and both define inalienable as "incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred" and both define unalienable as "inalienable."

What's more, Fowler's Modern English Usage has an extended entry on in- versus un-, concluding essentially that we just have to learn word by word when to use in- and when to use un-, sometimes both are used interchangeably (inadvisable, unadvisable), sometimes both are used but have different meanings (inhuman, unhuman; immoral, unmoral), sometimes both are used but arguments rage over which is correct (inarguable, unarguable), and sometimes words flip depending on the exact form (inability, unable; unequal, inequality; unseparated, inseparable).

And, what's more still, it turns out that the Founding Fathers used the terms unalienable and inalienable interchangeably! The final version of the Declaration uses unalienable, but various drafts exist and both words are used. All of the drafts in Jefferson's handwriting use inalienable. So if your instinct is use inalienable, you have good company. Whereas the rough draft written by John Adams says unalienable, and Adams was one of the committee which supervised the printing of the text adopted by Congress.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Of'en and wi'h grea' alacri'y

I'm sure I didn't hear it growing up. It probably starting with a self conscious attempt to enunciate better. But in any event, somewhere along the line, I start to pronounce the "t" in "often." And that makes me a bad person. Affer all, I don't pronounce the "t'" in soften, glisten, wrestle, castle or nestle  - to name a few.
No: often | Yes:  ofen
We have mastered the spelling of this word so well, its spelling influences the pronunciation: DON'T pronounce the [t]! This is an exception to the rule that spelling helps pronunciation.
People striving for sophistication often pronounce the T in this word, but true sophisticates know that the masses are correct in saying “offen.”
But if that makes me bad, apparently I have company.
According to Random House II (1987)
OFTEN was pronounced with a t- sound until the 17th century, when a pronunciation without the (t) came to predominate in the speech of the educated, in both North America and Great Britain, and the earlier pronunciation fell into disfavor. Common use of a spelling pronunciation has since restored the (t) for many speakers, and today [AWF-in] and [AWF-tin]…exist side by side. Although it is still sometimes criticized, OFTEN with a (t) is now so widely heard from educated speakers that it has become fully standard once again.
The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) suggests that the /t/ was lost in the 15th century, but that "Because of the influence of spelling," often "is now commonly pronounced with the t.
...[The] OED [notes] that twentieth century usage guides, including Modern English Usage (Fowler 1926) call pronunciation with /t/ a hypercorrection.
Perhaps.But can any English speaker really afford to get persnickety about consistent pronunciation? If so, decide how you want to pronounce the '"gh" sound in "Eight tough youths weighed enough boughs." Or, for that matter, the sound produced by "ou".

It isn't as though I've never heard a word pronounced in a way that seemed wrong to me and it bothered the stough out of me. But it probably annoyed educated people as much when language change took the "t" sound out of "often".

Perhaps the lesten to be learned is that language change happens. Deal with it.

Friday, October 8, 2010


The billboard read "Intentional Colding". It was an ad for beer. It was football themed. It was an obvious play on the phrase "intentional holding." Only this was a good thing.

One has to wonder, though, who's buying this. It's not uncommon to see beer companies advertise the coldness of their beers, as if it were some intrinsic quality of the product. But of course, regardless of brand, your beer will be as cold as your refrigerator.

"Cold" is an adjective, not a verb. "Colding"  isn't a word.

Or is it? There is a  reactionary movement brewing in protest of the very idea of global warming that has adopted the moniker global colding, not "cooling", "colding."

And answer me this: _______ is to cold as heating is to hot. Cooling? Freezing? Yes, but they are somewhat temperature specific. Even "chilling" doesn't quite wholly capture the idea of decreasing temperature. "Refrigerating" only pertains when using a specific appliance.

If there is no exact antonym of "heating", why not "colding"?

I'm just saying.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But the Truth

"It can't be 'partly' true, it's either true or it's not!" he insisted.

"Well," I wryly replied, "that's partly true."

So what does "true" mean anyway? Can something be partially true and partially false? Or is a statement all true or false if it contains any part which is false? It's not so clear. For, in truth, the question of what is "true" is one of hotly contested debate for centuries that filled many volumes and is well beyond the scope of this site or post. Here's the Wikipedia entry on Truth.

What my friend meant was true in the Boolean sense. "A and B" is true if and only if "A" is true and "B" is true. So, in that sense, his statement was true.

I contend, in contrast, that outside the nice little world of pure logic, things get a lot stickier and it starts to make more sense to think about propositions as wholly or partly true. In fact, in real world examples, it starts to become harder to find propositions which are wholly and unambiguously true.

The stock market crash of 1929 caused the Great Depression is true, says I, but it's not an uncontested statement, if generally accepted. And it's not the whole story. Some would argue it's not even the primary cause. They'd argue that absent other factors, say, the reaction of the Federal Reserve, the recession might not have turned into a depression.

This leads to another observation, "partly" or "partially" true might mean that the statement is true in part and false in part or it might mean that it is only part of what is true. In everyday use, people use "partly true" to avoid rejecting whole cloth a statement which contains some truth but not entirely or to hedge particularly when they cannot dispute a statement as stated but feel that there are attenuating or mitigating factors that are of equal or greater importance that have not yet presented.